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Assessment FOR Learning on the Football Field

Sometimes when you are trying to understand how an idea applies to a certain arena, it helps to have an example from a completely different arena. In that vein, here is an example of how AFL strategies have been used in high school football. Football? Yep.

The Salem Spartans Football Team has enjoyed great success for many years. People who watch Salem play often comment about how consistently excellent the Spartans are. Year after year they win games, often beating teams that appear to have much more talent. It’s easy to say that coaching is the reason (in fact, coaching is the only logical reason for the year-after-year success), but what does Salem’s coaching staff do that makes the difference? I think a few quotes from recent news articles will shed some light on this.

This quote was in the Roanoke Times and World News on September 12, 2009, after Salem defeated William Byrd:

"I think we're a successful team because we study film a lot and we know when they're running certain plays," [Seth] Fisher said. "We set up a blitz when they were running the quick pitch. I knew it was coming and expected to get the ball. I went for the ball instead of the tackle."

Notice what this player realized. He realized that by studying he could learn. He realized that by mastering the basics of content he could then apply his knowledge to new situations and make correct decisions. This doesn’t happen by studying just a little, and young people don't usually come to realizations like this accidentally. Obviously the coaches gave a lot of feedback and opportunity for practice. By doing so they made the complicated easy. How hard is to predict what someone else will do? Not that hard once you have studied their tendencies and practiced how to react to them.

This quote ran in the same article about the same game:

Salem, stifled on the ground last week in a 35-0 win at Lord Botetourt, got its running game off the ground. Coles scored on runs of 33 and 9 yards in the first half, and Daniel Dyer added a clinching 16-yarder with 11:13 to play. "We got together as a team this week," offensive lineman Kyle Wilson said. "We were more serious ... all of us."

These players (actually, these students) learned that if you get serious and work hard you can improve. First they needed to realize that they had a need to improve. The Salem coaches helped them understand that despite a 35-0 win the week before, these players had a lot of work ahead of them. They gave the players feedback and guided the players’ practice experience. The result was not only another win, but more importantly, the players believe even more in the coaching staff and understand that the feedback they receive from the coaches will help them succeed. They would not have figured this out on their own or solved the problem on their own. They needed the coaching staff to devote practice time to improving from last week.

After Salem beat Cave Spring, the following appeared in the Roanoke Times on October 11, 2009:

Salem defensive back Hunter Thompson intercepted a pass from Cave Spring's Josh Woodrum on the Knights' first play from scrimmage and returned it 44 yards to the 2-yard line. "We went over that route in practice the entire week," Thompson said. "He looked at the guy the entire time. I just ran to it and picked it off."

Similar to the quote from Fisher, Thompson discusses the importance of practice. You can just picture the coaches going over and over the Knights’ pass plays. I’m sure that Thompson didn’t get it right every time. However, the coaches’ gave feedback and taught him and the other players exactly what they needed to know. Come game time, Hunter was able to apply his knowledge to a new situation. The coaches again made the complex become simple.

This quote was in the same article:

"Every time I see one-on-one my eyes light up real big," McGarrell said. "I'm thinking touchdown every time." "Every time we read single coverage, we're on the same page every time," Barnette said.

Again, the complex becomes simple. The players study the opponent. They practice. They mess up. They receive feedback. They practice again. The work is hard. The reward is great.

So what would it look like if AFL strategies weren’t employed by coaches? Frankly it would be ridiculous to even imagine. Can you picture a team where the coach doesn’t give feedback? A team that doesn’t work toward a specific goal of beating the opponent? A coach that doesn’t have kids go over and over things until they get it right?

I doubt you will ever hear a coach say:
“I told them what to do; it’s their responsibility to do it. I’m not going to baby them by going over and over things. I’ve already played high school football successfully; it’s not my problem if they don’t get it right. Back when I was a kid football players weren’t coddled by coaches who guided their practice and worked side-by-side with players to help the team achieve its goals.”

AFL is inherent within coaching. Players constantly receive feedback. Repetition is the norm. Coaches study film, analyze practice, and watch players – also known as assessment – so that the coaches can know what they need to do better and emphasize more so that the team can reach its potential.

AFL strategies – repetition, lots of practice AND feedback, teachers USING feedback to guide instruction, and students USING feedback to guide learning – should be just as common in the classroom as they are on the field or court.
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6 Key AFL Ideas

The 2008-2009 school year was my school and school system's first year exploring Assessment FOR Learning/Formative Assessment. It was definitely a learning year for all of us.

Over the summer of 2009 I spent some time thinking back on what I had learned about AFL during the year. I thought about conversations that had occurred on our school's AFL Committee. I thought about time spent with individual teachers as we worked together to implement AFL practices into their classroom. I thought about articles and books I had read, videos I had watched, and many other AFL-related staff development opportunities in which I had participated.

The result was that I entered the 2009-2010 school year with a much greater appreciation for AFL. I had come to see how all-encompassing it really was - how it could truly impact our entire approach to instruction. I also realized that it was very easy to have misconceptions of exactly what AFL is all about.

All of that led to what I call my 6 Key AFL Ideas. When one understands and can apply these 6 ideas, AFL will have a positive impact on instruction and learning. However, when any of these ideas are missing or not understood, it seems to me that AFL loses its effectiveness or perhaps isn't even present.

6 Key AFL Ideas
1. Assessment and grading are not the same thing.
2. There aren’t AFL assignments and non-AFL assignments.
3. AFL provides a framework or reason for why we do what we do.
4. Assessment for LEARNING as opposed to Assessment for GRADING.
5. We learn from our mistakes.
6. Students need to know what they need to know so they can know if they know it.

Now let me explain in a little more detail what each of these ideas means:

1. Assessment and grading are not the same thing.
Try not to get into your mind that AFL means changing or altering the way you grade. AFL means assessing to help students learn. This can be done without grading. However, if you don’t grade well you can negate your AFL efforts. In other words, if you use all sorts of assessments to provide feedback to students and as a result your students learn, but then you grade in a way that causes their grades to not be reflective of their learning, then the AFL was negated by the grading practice. While assessment and grading are not the same thing, you must be willing to grow as needed in your grading practices as you grow in your assessment practices. But remember - when one speaks of assessing students it doesn't have to mean grading students.

2. There aren’t AFL assignments and non-AFL assignments.
AFL is HOW you USE assignments, not what assignments you use. Something has an AFL purpose if you
and/or the students use the feedback to further learning. All assessments can be used for an AFL purpose. AFL doesn't mean you will have to completely change the types of assessments you use. What it means is that you will be very cognizant of how frequently you assess so that you can provide very regular feedback to students.

3. AFL provides a framework or reason for why we do what we do.
AFL is a philosophy. When we attach a name or meaning to what we do, we are more likely to do it. A lot of people hear about an AFL strategy and say, "I already do that." But here's the thing - why do you do that? Education is not an exact science. Many of us stumble on certain activities or procedures that work. But do we understand why they work? If we have a governing philosophy for WHY we do things, then we are more likely to continue and even increase our doing them. Instead of doing something because we've always done it, we instead do it because it falls into our governing philosophy. This will most likely lead to that practice being enhanced and more practices like it being added to our toolbox.

4. Assessment for LEARNING as opposed to Assessment for GRADING.
Don’t be afraid to assess and not grade. Think of other ways to give feedback besides a traditional grade. Don’t get locked into the idea that you must average all feedback in order to determine a grade. Just because you give some sort of feedback doesn't mean the "grade" has to count into the whole. That is a box that educators find themselves in too often. It results in us grading student practice too much. The student ends up learning because of our teaching, but then gets a grade lower than their learning because of our grading. Assess for the purpose of learning.

5. We learn from our mistakes.
When a student makes a mistake in your classroom (does poorly on an assignment) can that mistake be used
for instruction and learning? Or does it always inherently lead to a lower grade and, therefore, discourage
learning? We all know that in life we usually learn the most from our mistakes. Too often in education students don't have the chance to demonstrate that or to erase their mistake. If students realize that they can learn from mistakes and then fix them then they will be more likely to take chances.

6. Students need to know what they need to know so they can know if they know it.
I have come to view this idea as perhaps AFL at its most potent form. If we use AFL properly we can empower students to take control of their learning. If students are regularly - preferable daily - given assessment feedback and then taught how to use it, they are more likely to grow into the types of learners we want them to be. They will gain skills that will carry them beyond us and into future learning experiences. Consider using rubrics on a regular basis. Let your students know your thoughts on AFL. Explicitly describe why you are assessing and doing what you do. Encourage/teach/require them to assess themselves.

I hope those 6 ideas make sense and that they help you out as you try to apply AFL to your classroom. Let me know if you have any questions or thoughts.
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